It was important for Lee Daniels to share Billie Holiday’s story. The acclaimed filmmaker has directed The United States Vs. Billie Holiday starring Andra Day, a movie about the government’s undercover narcotics sting plotted against the “Strange Fruit” icon. She would later die of cirrhosis not long after police raided her hospital room and handcuffed her on charges of drug possession. Billie Holiday’s struggles with substance abuse are well-documented, and Daniels wanted to convey her story to those who may not be privy to the jazz-pop singer’s life. Daniels also identified with Holiday’s battles as he revealed to The Guardian that he once faced drug abuse.
“Part of the reason I wanted to tell Billie’s story is, I understand addiction and the artist. I also understand the feeling of a lack of self-worth, thinking that you aren’t talented. When your father tells you things like that at a young age, no matter how old you get, that voice is in your head,” said the director. He added that as a youth, he saw how drugs affected those in his community: death or prison. Yet, the sweeping AIDS epidemic in the 1980s put a sense of fear in Daniels as he watched many of his friends lose their lives.
“I didn’t understand why so many of my friends were dying, who were far greater people and nicer than me, and they were just dropping dead,” he said. “So I think I began taking drugs to anesthetize the pain, and that spiraled into a dark place, and it took me a long time to get out of it.” It would take a phone call in the wee hours of the morning with Patti LaBelle to set him straight.
“Patti LaBelle was the cause of my sobriety. I called her one night at 3am – it was when I was doing Precious [in 2008], and I kept rambling at her, just rambling. Ha!” recalled Daniels. “She said to me, ‘You know God and you know Jesus,’ and I said, ‘Are you really gonna ruin my high now? What are you talking about, lady?’ But I said a prayer and that was the beginning for me.”
His road to recovery isn’t something that he typically speaks about openly, but all things considered with his most recent film, he thought it necessary. “I’m a little nervous talking about it. But it is important because it affected Billie, it affected me, and addiction is real. Unless I am talking about it, I am not going to stay sober.”